Sooo, I’m in the midst of my reading season for the Peach and I am always on the lookout for diverse books, especially those that speak to the teenage girl within me. She’s black and bookish, by the way. As you may have noticed from perusing the shelves at the local Barnes and Noble, that teenage girl doesn’t usually get to see herself that often in the pages she reads. She’s suburban, her parents are divorced, but her Dad is still around and hes’ a good Dad. She goes to a good school and she’s got her eyes on college. She’s not “urban” and struggling to deal with the ‘mean streets’ in any way. This girl in YA pages is rare indeed. Try to find a book with a main character of color, written by a person of color and you are searching for plutonium my friend.

For many reasons I’m not interested in going into right now, many white authors have been tapped or have answered the call for diverse books and have written books with main characters of color. Kudos to these allies. All kids deserve to see their realities or their fantasies in print. The problem is that the desire to reflect these lives may sometimes exceed the ability to “authentically” depict these characters.

Here are a few pitfalls that I’ve seen in my reading. They make your characters seem inauthentic and make it clear you don’t share the background of your character.

#1: They are all alone.
If I’m reading a book and the main character is Black or Latino or Asian or all three or a variation and they are the only person of color in their friend group I’m willing to bet good money that the author is White. This tells me that you dipped your character in chocolate or gave the a little tan and called it a day. One multi-layered character of color isn’t enough and writing non-stereotypical support characters takes some effort and know-how. People of color have learned that there is safety in groups in hostile territory. Even in the suburbs of Virginia we tend to cluster together. Maybe you’ve noticed this. You should have. To isolate your character means that she is avoiding other POC for some reason. You’ll need to make that reason clear, otherwise it’s a red flag.

#2 Mama ISN’T her first name.
By and large, communities of color hold their elders in high esteem. For the most part they don’t call their parents by their first names. Close friends of parents may even be called ‘Uncle’ or ‘Auntie’ out of respect. This is regardless of the child’s relationship with the parent. They are honorifics that are immovable. If your character is calling their mother Beth, it’s a red flag. Explain it. Was the girl raised by her grandmother and the mother just came back in the picture. If there is not explanation then your character starts to stink of alienness.

#3 They notice their skin.
Brown folks don’t notice how brown their skin is. A Latina character should never say, “I looked down at my tawny skin.” What? She’d just look at her skin. The same goes for hair.  “I pulled a rubber band around my kinky hair.” No! No! She’d just put a rubber band in her hair. We don’t identify ourselves by our noticeable physical differences from white folks.

#4 Talking back.
See #2. Yelling at parents, slamming doors in parents faces, and other aggressive behaviors are ‘generally’ ( I say this, because it is not all households, but I’m referring to cultural norms) frowned upon. By frowned, I mean not tolerated without swift and severe consequences. If your main character of color comes home late from a night out and stomps up to her room after yelling at her Mom about being overprotective and slams her bedroom door. The authentic follow up to that could be anything from Mom kicking the door down to Mom ordering child to sleep on the porch to Mom taking the door off the hinges. The inauthentic follow-up action is to cut to the next day as Mom goes to work without saying ‘goodbye’. This is a glaring misstep. It is a wide cultural difference that will not go unnoticed.

#5 Ignoring White Stereotypes.
There are stereotypes about White people and White culture. Just as you would avoid having your character sit down for a lunch of fried chicken and watermelon before their tap dancing lesson, you don’t want to inadvertently have your character do something that may mark them as ‘chocolate dipped’. For example, there is a saying that white kids do drugs and black kids sell drugs. If your character of color is big into acid, heroin, cocaine, etc. That is a marker that your character is inauthentically Black. Statistically, and anecdotally kids of color do far less drugs than white kids and if they do they usually aren’t hard drugs. There are lots of reasons for this, some economic, but honestly the ‘drug’ talk isn’t really a quiet topic in our households. The legal system is not kind to brown kids and those with any wits about them aren’t really down to ‘experiment’ that often, the consequences are far too high and far too likely to make it worth the risk.

Also, I’ve seen a lot of character work around eating disorders. This is not a common problem in Black communities. It happens, we are not a subspecies, but it’s much more common to have a Black or Latina girl want a bigger butt or thighs than be concerned about her weight. It might be more believable to add a concern about hair texture or skin tone, but you’ll have to do your research. All of this is about research. It isn’t easy speaking for someone else. You really CAN’T overthink it.

I invite dialogue, so let me know if I’m completely off base or if you’ve noticed other missteps in the literature.

Honestly, all of this would be avoidable if more writers of color were given the chance to publish mediocre stories about people of color. I don’t review books that I don’t think are good, or at least good enough so these are just a few of the mistakes I’ve seen in my readings. No shade.

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